Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"It's a coup!": Some more reflections on the Wall Street bailout reactions

"When small men begin to cast big shadows,
it means that the sun is about to set."
--Lin Yutang

WWW--It was coming from Michael Moore, Naomi Wolf, and from all-points-in-between on the political spectrum back at the end of this last September and October: the bailout of Wall Street was a coup because "we're all being robbed," case closed. That we're all being robbed is a certainty, but a coup? I still keep hearing this weird contention, yet I'm not seeing any proof that any of the players being bailed-out are different ones.

Why should we care if it's the same people? Because that's one of the main preconditions of a coup--someone else has to be in-charge, replacing the last group. What coup? It doesn't fit the definition, yet you have progressives and conservatives screaming one has occurred all over the place. Was there one? Well, yes, ages ago, and they missed it. They're making strange sounds over this, and I wanted to know why, and I've given it a lot of thought and reached a few tentative conclusions.

My belief: people like Michael Moore have had major investments on Wall Street like many of us have had (not me, however!), and that includes folks like Arianna Huffington, Al Franken, much of the wider society, and maybe even a few investigative journalists and media-outlet owners out there. But aren't they begging the question? That was my feeling back in September, and it still is, with a few more historical reflections.

Now, if you lost your ass on Wall Street and you heard that others were being bailed-out--and you weren't--wouldn't you be freaking-out and yelling too? Sure you would, and if you had a soapbox bigger than everyone else's, you'd use it, right? Perhaps. This shouting
that the first bailout of the banks was a "coup" by some of these celebrities across the political spectrum reminded me of someone from our past: Father Charles E. Coughlin, the radio priest.

Today, most Americans have no idea who Coughlin was, but you could say that he was one-part Rush Limbaugh, one-part Michael Moore, and one-part Joseph Goebbels. Yes, this is about the 1930s and the Great Depression, what else would it be about? Coughlin was originally from Ontario, Canada and had confronted a group of the KKK who had tried to burn his church in an act of anti-Catholic hate, so he began with "progressive" and populist credentials. At the dawn of the Great Depression, Coughlin sounded like a voice of reason to many, and they supported him with money and activism. He went as far as founding a short-lived political party, the NUSJ (The National Union for Social Justice), and was most popular with Irish-Catholics during the 1930s, but had a much wider appeal.

Incredibly, he and Gerald L.K. Smith (a lieutenant of Huey Long) could be fairly credited with creating the white supremacist movement. How did it end up that way? From frustrated populist aspirations and a deep disdain for Western-style capitalism. Some people react dysfunctionally to social injustice because they're terminal racists. Where did it all begin for the "radio priest"?

Father Coughlin's American parish in Royal Oak, Michigan began doing radio broadcasts of his sermons sometime in 1926 out of Detroit's radio station WJR, the beginning of the radio age. It has been calculated that Coughlin had a listenership-peak of as many as 40 million, an incredible number for its time. Coughlin was radically populist one moment in his speeches, backing Roosevelt completely one day, and then making remarks totally against the New Deal the next depending on which way the political winds were blowing at the moment. For him--as with Limbaugh--it was all about ratings. In this respect, little has changed since the 1930s, but he accidentally pushed FDR further to the left, so he had some value.

While Coughlin was railing against Wall Street, he was heavily invested in it at a time when almost nobody in the general population
was. Who had money then? Demagogues like Charles Coughlin, that's who; the radio priest was getting rich slamming Wall Street, from his appeals for donations, and his weekly radio program's advertising revenue. Unbeknownst to most Americans, by the mid-1930s, Father Coughlin was one of the largest holders of silver in America. In other words, he was a hypocrite in most respects, and vanity assured his fall. Coughlin began with very enthusiastic support of FDR's New Deal programs, but by 1934 he started having political aspirations of his own and began bitterly attacking Roosevelt and his policies. He also began broadcasting and writing anti-Semitic remarks and began his love affair with Continental fascism and the Nazi State.

By 1938, he reprinted the Tsarist secret police (Okhrana) forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in his own newsletter, "Social Justice," and was witnessed at a Bronx speaking- engagement doing the fascist salute. It was all downhill after that, as radio stations stopped carrying his programs and the Roosevelt administration moved on him to curb his ability to disseminate first his radio programs, then his newspaper and related literature through the postal system. By 1942, with his support of Nazism all-but-complete, Coughlin became a marginalized laughingstock, and went back to his tiny Royal Oak parish to live out the rest of his life in relative obscurity.

Interstingly, he had connections with a domestic fascist group called the "Christian Front," who plotted to overthrow the government of the United States. He never renounced his connection to them.

I don't think Michael Moore is exactly the same kind of creature as Coughlin, and this isn't some attempt to smear him with the same brush at all, because it's not accurate or fair. But there are a lot of parallels between his life and that of Coughlin, and he's not alone. New communications media have empowered many individuals in the last two decades like never before, and with that access comes the same kinds of issues that arose during the 1930s, a time when radio was first emerging as a force. But the cries of "coup" smack of similar hypocrisies that people like Coughlin once engaged in. One might ask such celebrities like Limbaugh and Moore (or even "conspiracy" writers/activists like Alex Jones) what their holdings on Wall Street are today. You might get a very surprising answer indeed, even with the contemporary prevalence of investment.

Now is definitely a time of demagogues, but the question is: "Who are they exactly? Who are the demagogues?" Rush Limbaugh and most of the right-wing noise machine certainly fit that bill, but there are others out there, right now, waiting for their time. Intellectual honesty is as good an inoculation as you're likely to get, a proactive solution for the ages.